Niki Tudge October 2011 Copyright
A few days ago one of our DogSmith Dog Trainers, Susan Barton, brought a new puppy into their home. I just love puppies of all shapes and sizes and feel very strongly about guiding owners in the right direction for their puppies socialization. Seeing Lucy reminded me that soon many of you will be out looking for your holiday puppies so i felt it was the right time to post a blog on the critical socialization periods of dogs. Susan congratulations on Lucy i am sure she is headed for great things and will become another great ambassador of The DogSmith Dog Training Programs.
The Critical Socialization Periods of a Pet Dog
There are key stages within a dog’s development where they are particularly sensitive to environmental influences. Scot & Fuller, (1965) and Serpell & Jagoe (1995) have described that conditioning of behavior during these sensitive periods is not easily changed in later years. Whereas genetics set the range for physical or behavioral traits the dog’s experiences during these important periods will determine where within that range the dog behavioral tendencies lie. Scott and Fuller (‘O’Heare p 47) concluded that “dogs should be introduced gradually and sensitively to the circumstances that they are likely to experience during their lives.” Socialization during the key sensitive periods is critical as dogs are biologically prepared to learn different things during different phases of their development. An emphasis and focus on socialization should be made around the 6 – 8 week mark as this is considered the peak of the socialization period.
During the prenatal period, studies have shown that environmental influences, such as stress, can affect the behavior of the fetus. If the mother is reactive, emotional or stressed then this may produce similar traits in her offspring.
During the neonatal period (birth to 2 weeks) puppies are slowly learning even though their ears and eyes remain closed. They are very sensitive to touch and smell and careful and reoccurring handling has been shown to be a valuable practice and can produce confident and exploratory behavior even though these learned associations may not carry over to adulthood (O’Heare 2010).
The transitional period (2-3 weeks) prepares dogs for the socialization period. Puppies begin to move, stand and walk during this period and many new behavior patterns emerge such as communication behaviors and simple associations (O’Heare p 46 2010).
During the socialization period (2.5-3 to 9-13 weeks) dogs form attachments to people, places and locations. During the first period of this socialization period puppies will begin to approach strangers and be tolerant of passive handling. This leads on to a period between 8 to 10 weeks where a ‘fear’ period begins. During this ‘fear’ period if a puppy is exposed to aversive stimulation it can have long term effects on a dogs behavior. This is the period where most new puppies are adopted or purchased making the timing of this homing event important. Puppies need time to settle into their new homes before they hit the ‘fear’ period at around 10 weeks of age. Placement prior to 6 weeks of age can also be detrimental to puppies’ behavioral wellbeing as it has been shown that they suffer from distress, lack of appetite and are susceptible to disease (‘O’Heare 2010).
The juvenile period (12 weeks to 6 months) sees puppies become less tolerant to change. There motor capacities emerge and they have an increased learning capacity. Social relationships with other dogs become more stable and at around 6 months of age they reach sexual maturity.
So for all you new puppy owners out there, be aware of the social development periods of your new puppy. If you are still looking and searching for your new puppy think carefully about where your puppy comes from, the early days are also critical on its long term development. Enroll your puppy into a well run puppy class free of aversives and punishment. Choose a force free trainer who can help you shape your puppies future behavior and they will get you quickly on the road to owning a happy and mentally healthy puppy.
O’Heare J. Domestic Dog Behavior 103 (2010)